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Ranking Disney: #2 – Fantasia (1940)

Objectively, this is probably #1. Well — top three no matter what. I feel like, this and Snow White are probably in top three no matter what. To me, this is, not counting Snow White (which has to be the “greatest,” being the one that started it all), their greatest achievement. It’s a great piece of art, animation, and a great film on top of it all.

However — it’s not #1, because — when I watched it, I realized — I hold this film in very, very high regard, and I love it. But when I watch it, there are a few segments where, while the animation is great, they’re a bit slow for me, and it’s the kind of thing where I’d consider forwarding through some of it unless I was totally on board with watching the whole thing. Whereas the film I put at number one (which should be obvious by now) is a film where — I’ll watch that one all the way through, every time. And it feels like an experience. So, for fun purposes, I put this at two. But, in terms of full packages, this was so close to being my #1. (I also felt it would have been a really easy choice for #1, which is another thing I didn’t want to do.)

Either way — it’s fucking Fantasia. If this isn’t in your top three (okay, top five if you’re doing the list like I am, based on how much you like them, and top ten if you’re totally batshit and have weird tastes), you’re delusional.

The film begins with a cold open. No title card. Just scenes of musicians getting their instruments, tuning them, and getting ready. (The title card doesn’t appear until the intermission.)

Deems Taylor then comes out and introduces the program. And since I can, here’s what he says:

“How do you do? My name is Deems Taylor, and it’s my very pleasant duty to welcome you here on behalf of Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and all the other artists and musicians whose combined talents went into the creation of this new form of entertainment, “Fantasia”. What you’re going to see are the designs and pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds and imaginations of a group of artists. In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians, which I think is all to the good. Now there are three kinds of music on this “Fantasia” program. First, there’s the kind that tells a definite story. Then there’s the kind that while it has no specific plot, it does paint a series of more or less definite pictures. And then there’s a third kind, music that exists simply for its own sake. Now, the number that opens our “Fantasia” program, the “Toccata and Fugue”, is music of this third kind, what we call “absolute music”. Even the title has no meaning beyond a description of the form of the music. What you will see on the screen is a picture of the various abstract images that might pass through your mind if you sat in a concert hall listening to this music. At first, you’re more or less conscious of the orchestra. So our picture opens with a series of impressions of the conductor and the players. Then the music begins to suggest other things to your imagination. They might be, oh, just masses of color or they may be cloud forms or great landscapes or vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space. So now we present the “Toccata and Fugue In D Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach, interpreted in pictures by Walt Disney and his associates, and in music by the Philadelphia Orchestra and its conductor, Leopold Stokowski.”

So we have “Toccata and Fugue”:

Next, Deems introduces “The Nutcracker Suite”:

You know, it’s funny how wrong an artist can be about his own work. The one composition of Tchaikovsky’s that he really detested was his “Nutcracker Suite”, which is probably the most popular thing he ever wrote. It’s a series of dances taken out of a full-length ballet called “The Nutcracker” that he once composed for the St. Petersburg Opera House. It wasn’t much of a success and nobody performs it nowadays, but I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize the music of the suite when you hear it. Incidentally, you won’t see any nutcracker on the screen; there’s nothing left of him but the title.”

Oh… you know what time it is — it’s racist mushroom time!

(P.S. If you just heard a gong sound, you had the correct reaction.)

This fish looks exactly like Marlene Dietrich. (If you don’t know who she is, look her up. Trust me, you’ll see the resemblance.)

Then Deems introduces “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”:

“And now we’re going to hear a piece of music that tells a very definite story. As a matter of fact, in this case, the story came first and the composer wrote the music to go with it. It’s a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years: a legend about a sorcerer who had an apprentice. He was a bright young lad; very anxious to learn the business. As a matter of fact, he was a little bit too bright, because he started practicing some of the boss’ best magic tricks before learning how to control them. One day, for instance, when he’d been told by his master to carry water to fill a cauldron, he had the brilliant idea of having someone do the job for him. So he brought a broomstick to life to carry the water. Well, this worked very well at first. Unfortunately, however, having forgotten the magic formula that would make the broomstick stop carrying the water, he found he’d started something he couldn’t finish.”

Then there’s that interlude where Mickey shows up and shakes Deems’ hand, which must have ben a great moment for 1940, the animated character interacting with the real person.

Then Deems introduces “Rite of Spring”:

“When Igor Stravinsky wrote his ballet, “The Rite of Spring”, his purpose was, in his own words, “to express primitive life.” So Walt Disney and his fellow artists have take him at the word. Instead of presenting the ballet in its original form as a simple series of tribal dances, they have visualized it as a pageant as the story of the growth of life on Earth. And that story, as you’re going to see it, isn’t the product of anybody’s imagination. It’s a coldly accurate reproduction of what science thinks went on during the first few billion years of this planet’s existence. Science, not art, wrote the scenario of this picture. According to science, the first living things here were single-celled organisms, tiny little white or green blobs of nothing in particular that lived under the water. And then, as the ages passed, the oceans began to swarm with all kinds of marine creatures. Finally, after about a billion years, certain fish, more ambitious than the rest, crawled up on land and became the first amphibians. And then several hundred million years ago, nature went off on another task and produced the dinosaurs. Now, the name “dinosaur” comes from two Greek words meaning “terrible lizard”, and they were certainly that. They came in all shapes and sizes, from little crawling horrors about the size of a chicken to hundred-ton nightmares. They were not very bright. Even the biggest of them had only the brain of a pigeon. They lived in the air and the water as well as on land. As a rule, they were vegetarians, rather amiable and easy to get along with. However, there were bullies and gangsters among them. The worst of the lot, a brute named Tyrannosaurus Rex was probably the meanest killer that ever roamed the earth. The dinosaurs were lords of creation for about 200 million years. And then… well, we don’t exactly know what happened. Some scientists think that great droughts and earthquakes turned the whole world into a gigantic dustbowl. In any case, the dinosaurs were wiped out. That is where our story ends. Where it begins is at a time infinitely far back when there was no life at all on earth, nothing but clouds of steam, boiling seas and exploding volcanoes. So now imagine yourselves out in space billions and billions of years ago looking down on this lonely, tormented little planet spinning through an empty sea of nothingness.”

Then we have our intermission. After the intermission, Deems conducts an interview with the film’s Soundtrack. It’s kind of a bizarrely brilliant moment.

Then Deems introduces “The Pastoral Symphony”:

“The symphony that Beethoven called the “Pastoral”, his sixth, is one of the few pieces of music he ever wrote that tells something like a definite story. He was a great nature lover, and in this symphony, he paints a musical picture of a day in the country. Of course, the country that Beethoven described was the countryside with which he was familiar. But his music covers a much wider field than that, and so Walt Disney has given the “Pastoral Symphony” a mythological setting, and the setting is of Mount Olympus, the abode of the gods. And here, first of all, we meet a group of fabulous creatures of the field and forest: unicorns, fawns, Pegasus the flying horse and his entire family, the centaurs, those strange creatures that are half man and half horse, and their girlfriends, the centaurettes. Later on, we meet our old friend Bacchus, the god of wine, presiding over a bacchanal. The party is interrupted by a storm, and now we see Vulcan forging thunderbolts and handing them over to the king of all the gods, Zeus, who plays darts with them. As the storm clears, we see Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, and Apollo, driving his sun chariot across the sky. And then Morpheus, the god of sleep, covers everything with his cloak of night as Diana, using the new moon as a bow, shoots an arrow of fire that spangles the sky with stars.”

“Nants ingonya ma bagithi baba!”

Then he introduces “The Dance of the Hours”:

“Now we’re going to do one of the most famous and popular ballets ever written: the “Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s opera “La Gioconda”. It’s a pageant of the hours of the day. We see first a group of dancers in costumes to suggest the delicate light of dawn. Then a second group enters dressed to represent the brilliant light of noon day. As these withdraw, a third group enters in costumes that suggest the delicate tones of early evening. Then a last group, all in black, the somber hours of the night. Suddenly, the orchestra bursts into a brilliant finale in which the hours of darkness are overcome by the hours of light. All this takes place in the great hall, with its garden beyond, of the palace of Duke Alvise, a Venetian nobleman.”

(Not too many screenshots of this one. I’m not the biggest fan of it.)

And we finish the film with “A Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria”:

“The last number in our Fantasia program is a combination of two pieces of music so utterly different in construction and mood that they set each other off perfectly. The first is ‘A Night On Bald Mountain’ by one of Russia’s greatest composers, Modest Mussorgsky. The second is Franz Schubert’s world-famous “Ave Maria”. Musically and dramatically, we have here a picture of the struggle between the profane and the sacred. “Bald Mountain” according to tradition, is the gathering place of Satan and his followers. Here, on Walpurgnisnacht, which is the equivalent of our own Halloween, the creatures of evil gather to worship their master. Under his spell, they dance furiously until the coming of dawn and the sounds of church bells send the infernal army slinking back into their abodes of darkness. And then we hear the “Ave Maria”, with its message of the triumph of hope and life over the powers of despair and death.”

And that’s how we end what might be the greatest thing Disney has ever made.

Perfection.

– – – – –

Official Disney Number: #3

Run Time: 125 minutes

Release Date: 125 minutes

Budget: $2.28 million

Box Office: I know this wasn’t a huge hit when it came out, so the number can’t be totally trusted, but I do trust that it made $76.4 million all-time domestically

– – – – –

Songs:

  1. “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565,” by Johann Sebastian Bach
  2. “The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a,” by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky
  3. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” by Paul Dukas
  4. “Rite of Spring,” by Igor Stravinsky
  5. “Symphony No. 6 (‘Pastoral’) Op. 68,” by Ludwig van Beethoven
  6. “Dance of the Hours,” (from “La Gioconda”) by Amilcare Ponchielli
  7. “A Night on Bald Mountain,” by Modest Mussorgsky
  8. “Ave Maria, Op. 52 No. 6,” by Franzy Schubert

– – – – –

Voice Cast:

Live-action:

Leopold Stokowski, as Conductor
Deems Taylor, as Narrator (apparently now the voice we hear is that of Corey Burton, who dubbed all of Taylor’s introductions when they restored the film in 2000)

Voices:

Walt Disney, as Mickey Mouse

– – – – –

Trivia:

  • The idea for this film came when Walt felt Mickey needed a popularity boost, so he wanted to make “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” into a short film. He wanted it to be something more than just a Silly Symphony, with slapstick humor. He wanted it to be — well, what this film is. The mixture of music and animation, creating an almost dreamlike fantasy. However, as they started making this short, the price went up really high, over $125,000, making it impossible a short film could recoup those costs. So they then decided to put a series of musical numbers into a feature film. They spent a good long time picking out which numbers to use, and how to animate those numbers. And, to make a long and complicated story short — we eventually ended up with the masterpiece this film is today.
  • This is still the longest Disney film by a margin of a good twenty-five minutes. No other film made by the company is longer than 100 minutes. This is the only film that hits the two-hour mark.
  • Walt didn’t give the animators any instructions for coloring. He told them to use whatever colors they wanted.
  • Igor Stravinsky was the only composer whose music was used who was still living at the time of release. When Walt contacted him about the rites to “Rite of Spring,” Stravinsky offered to compose an entirely new piece for him. They decided against this, and apparently Stravinsky hated that they re-organized the piece and cut some stuff out.
  • This is the first American film to use stereophonic sound.
  • We all know this one but — they based a lot of Yen Sid on Walt.
  • Walt wanted to re-release the film every year with new music segments, but they scrapped this (probably when the film didn’t turn out to be a huge success). I still think they should do it every couple of years.
  • Here’s a great story: one day Walt happened to run into Leopold Stokowski. They agreed to go to dinner together, and as they talked at that dinner, Walt talked about his plans to use classical music with animation. And Stokowski said, “I’d conduct that for you.” And he did.
  • This is the first major Hollywood film to be released without opening credits.

– – – – –

Disney Motifs:

There aren’t going to be many motifs for Fantasia, because this film is, quite literally, one of the films that created those motifs. And I’ve listed everything I found throughout the way that has referenced this film (and even one or two up there). So really, this is the kind of film where you find out something referenced it, and then check back here for the corresponding screenshot. I can’t list all the other films that referenced this one, because it would be pointless. It would be too many shots.

So I’ve limited by motifs for this film to three. Two of which appear in pretty much every Disney movie, and the third is something that I really like, and something they do occasionally, so it merits inclusion.

1. The film opens with curtains opening on the film. They do the curtain opening thing a few times, and this most reminds me of one of the package films — Melody Time, I believe, which also opens (and maybe even closes) like this.

2. Negative coloring. Has to go here.

3. And characters reflected in the water.

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